The History of Calligraphy

The History of Calligraphy

The History of Calligraphy is a huge but often overlooked item of history.

Many people use calligraphy on wedding invitations, important documents and for various other ceremonial practices.

Whether you’re a fan of the fountain pen or spend most of your days typing, calligraphy has played a role in your letters.

From Ancient Egypt to Victorian Britain, all countries have calligraphy and writing styles that have developed over time.

The history of calligraphy goes back many thousands of years.

It has allowed many cultures to record and express traditional scripts, teachings and stories.

Calligraphy was writing to many people but these days we know it more for its artistic expression and beauty.

It is used in languages and texts across the world and throughout history, so much so that when researching its history, it’s hard to know where to start.

Calligraphy in the West: The Romans

The History of Calligraphy

In Western culture, the Romans were innovative in the development of calligraphy.

They, of course, wrote in Latin, and the Roman Alphabet dates back to approximately 600BCE.

In fact, you’re reading the Roman alphabet right now.

It has influenced the History of Calligraphy in the West hugely.

Scrips developed from these ‘monumental letters’.

Roman secretaries and business people used the Roman Cursive handwriting script.

Examples of this writing are often very hard to read compared to their broad lettered counterparts.


Christians heavily influenced the development of calligraphy in the West.

Monks were educated in literacy when few others were. They translated the Bible into various languages.

They translated many re texts from Latin into more modern European languages, including English, Italian and French among others.

Calligraphy developed hugely, and the Roman letters are used today in the majority of western languages.

Chinese Calligraphy

The History of Calligraphy

If we head eastwards, we start to encounter scrips such as Chinese.

There are examples of Chinese calligraphy that date back to over 3000 years ago.

They wrote often on turtle shells and animal bones, in a script called Oracle Bone Script.

They mostly consisted of record-keeping and divinations from the Shang Dynasty.

While these are the earliest examples of Chinese writing, there isn’t conclusive proof that the Shang Dynasty itself was responsible for the development of the writing system.

In China, Calligraphy is one of six ancient and classic arts.

The five others are music, charioteering, ritual, numbers and archery.

In time, of course, they used paper for the majority of calligraphy as opposed to animal parts.

In China, calligraphy involves the use of brushes, an inkstone and inkstick.

The characters are very complex and require lots of practice.

Chinese Calligraphy Tools

They wrote vertically, and often on lanterns, wooden surfaces and other places as well as on paper.

An inkstick rubs on the inkstone with some water to produce ink. Practitioners create thickness and depth of lines by adding more or less water.

The paper used differs from normal writing paper and is often thicker and of much higher quality.

The type that is most commonly used is rice paper, named Zhi Xuan.

There are different subcategories of this paper. For practice, other kinds of paper are used and Zhi Xuan is saved for final pieces.

Today, there is Traditional Chinese script and Simplified Chinese script (find out more about these here).

The former, as the name suggests, comes from traditions and heritage. The simplified script was to assist in spreading literacy to the masses.

The logograms used in Chinese have been used by other Asian languages in writing such as Japanese and Korean.

However, these both have multiple alphabets and their own wonderful histories behind their writing styles.

Japan, for example, has several alphabets including Hiragana and Katakana, and also makes use of Chinese Kanji characters.

Arabic Calligraphy and the Middle East

The History of Calligraphy

If we look at the Middle East, we can see another religion that contributed hugely to the history of calligraphy.

The spread of Islam in this region brought the Arabic language to many countries.

The first universal script was called ‘Kufic’, but there existed many other ways of writing.

People considered the script inconsistent, but improvements were to come.

The city of Baghdad was founded in the mid 8th century, and it became the centre of the Middle East. It brought huge leaps in calligraphy.

As Islam spread across the world, the practice of calligraphy in Arabic came to many different countries, including parts of the Ottoman Empire and parts of India.

Now, the Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters and is written from right to left. This is as opposed to the Western style of left to right. The ‘Arabic Abjad’ Alphabet is wrote cursively.

The holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, played a huge role in the development of Arabic calligraphy.

Muslims considered it of high importance to copy and distribute the text of the Qur’an, and that it deserved to look grand and appealing to the eye.

Today, Islam is a world-renowned religion. Like Christianity in the West, has played a core role in the development of writing and calligraphy.

The tools for calligraphy varied over the ages.

Early examples would use very crude implements. These would eventually develop into quills and eventually into variations of brushes.

These then led to more refined writing implements. In Victorian Britain, pen nibs were dipped into ink pots for writing.

Victorian teachers taught school children to write on chalkboards.

They would then progress to using ink and pens and wrote lettering that was more elaborate than the lettering we’d use today.

Now modern ballpoint is much more convenient!

Calligraphy in the modern world is used for more for artistic reasons rather than to write and record.

Many people use calligraphy on wedding invitations, important documents and for various other ceremonial practices. Calligraphy is still taught and is a very prestigious discipline and tradition across the world.

The Printing Press and Artistic Calligraphy

The introduction of the printing press changed the production and copying of text.

The press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg.  In around 1455, he released the ‘Gutenberg Bible,’ the first-ever printed book.

This invention was slow to spread across Europe, but with the development of hot typesetting, printing became very popular.

People were able to print newspapers very speedily and quickly.

In the UK, newspapers were distributed two or even three times a day. This was all possible because of the printing presses.

Handwriting and copying texts suddenly became very impractical compared to the efficiency of printing presses.

As a result, calligraphy fell out of use in books and published texts.

Of course, there was still the lost art of letter writing, something we don’t do much of these days!

The technology grew and ended up becoming the computer and word processing tools we know and love today.

(By the way, did you know you can write the world typewriter using the top row on your keyboard? Try it. Pretty cool don’t you think?)

Keyboards: Writing and Typing Today

The History of Calligraphy

Keyboards on modern computers are based on their typewriter ancestors.

The letters on the QWERTY keyboard (again, read that top row!)  are arranged so that those that tend to come together are spread apart.

This was so the hammers on typewriters did not hit each other.

While there are other methods of organising the letters on a keyboard, none of them have quite taken off like QWERTY.

So, from paintbrush to word processing, the history of calligraphy has come a long way.

Today you can still see many examples of artistic and beautiful calligraphy online.

Here’s a look at some right here.